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Senior White House Education Advisor on how schools can access COVID testing to curb Omicron amid ‘supply crisis’

Asher Lehrer-Small | January 26, 2022

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The Omicron surge may be peaking in some regions across the U.S., but schools are still buckling under the weight of high student and staff caseloads — and as school leaders labor to keep their doors open, many districts have found themselves running short on a relied-upon resource: COVID tests.

There is a “COVID test supply crisis” that will impact Michigan schools, said Linda Vail, health officer for Central Michigan’s Ingham County, last Wednesday. The state is working to supply testing kits to schools in the highest-risk communities where COVID is most rampant, she said. States from Florida to Washington have also faced similar shortages.

Last week, the Biden administration announced that it was “doubling down” on its commitment to keeping schools operating safely in person by providing an additional 10 million monthly COVID test to K-12 institutions nationwide — 5 million rapid and 5 million PCR.

In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed “test-to-stay” protocols that allow students and staff who may have been exposed to COVID to remain in school buildings, provided they test negative for the virus before walking through the front doors.

But where testing supplies dwindle, it can cause severe hiccups in school operations.

Most schools across the country have managed to stay open in the three weeks since winter break. But an average of more than 5,300 schools per week have been disrupted by brief closures or pivots to virtual learning as they navigated high caseloads and staff shortages, according to the K-12 data service Burbio.

Earlier this month, over 980,000 new youth COVID cases were reported nationwide, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the largest weekly total to date and nearly quadruple the highest tally previous to Omicron.

To help weather the current surge, Asher Lehrer-Small spoke with White House Senior Education Policy Advisor Mary Wall who explained how schools can make use of the newly available testing resources.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Asher Lehrer-Small: Testing in schools is such a key issue right now during the Omicron surge and some officials are saying that they might run out of supply soon. What is your message to school leaders on how to access testing?

Mary Wall: Sure. We’ve really made a lot of efforts to make sure that schools have everything they need to reopen and remain open safely and testing has been central to that effort. It was the core investments that this administration made, starting with the American Rescue Plan, that really helped to make sure that schools could be ready for this moment.

Mary Wall (LinkedIn)

Across the country there are many, many schools who are implementing testing right now and building on the existing testing programs that they already established. We know that schools are kind of coming at this from a lot of different places and a lot of different levels of experience, so we want to make sure it’s easy for everyone to access both the tests as well as [strategies for] implementing testing in school.

The biggest headline is the $10 billion that we invested in the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity (ELC) program at the CDC. That gave $10 billion to states to set up testing programs for schools and we have seen significant movement from states doing just that.

We’re building on that with the new announcement of the 5 million rapid antigen tests, as well as the expansion of capacity through Operation Expanded Testing to reach another 5 million [through PCR testing] with lab capacity each month.

So that $10 billion investment, those 5 million rapid tests and 5 million PCR tests, those are big numbers. I’m curious, what are the mechanics going on here? And what might some school leaders not understand that could be keeping them from accessing tests that are available to them?

Testing can be a challenging endeavor for schools, and schools have been asked to do a lot over the course of the pandemic. We’ve seen it as our charge to make it as easy as possible for schools to tap into resources.

With the news we announced last week, we have put out steps for schools to take right away. The first and foremost would be tapping into the state’s existing testing initiatives. Every state has something set up for K-12 COVID-19 testing and it varies by state how exactly it looks. But we have created a resource on the CDC website that is basically a directory of every state’s approach that the school can go onto right now and click to learn more about what their state is doing for K-12 testing. That page will lead them to how to get involved in their state’s program.

A screenshot from the CDC’s webpage on states’ school COVID testing programs.

If they want to make use of the 5 million antigen tests that we are now offering, those are usually requested by state health departments. And they are … submitting requests to the CDC for those (based on local need). But testing resources fueled by the $10 billion in ELC funds, those are available right now and schools can tap into those right away.

Operation Expanded Testing, which is the free lab-based (PCR) testing capacity that we offer as the federal government, that is also available and open for service right now. Schools can go online to the Operation ET website, click on the link for the regional hub, and they can begin the process right away … and can get started in as few as seven days after that.

We also want to remind all schools that they are able to also connect to other testing providers that operate in their state and use their ESSR [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund] dollars. So there’s $132 billion distributed through the American Rescue Plan for states and school districts. Testing is an allowable use of funds and we’ve seen many school districts [use] that funding stream to set up customized programs in their schools — and that’s been in large districts and in small districts.

That’s fantastic. And after the announcement earlier this month, what kind of responses did the U.S. Department of Education receive from K-12 leaders?

We’ve been getting a lot of interesting and exciting responses on testing. It kind of falls into a couple different categories.

One is, we’ve gotten a lot of really eager and positive feedback from districts who have already been doing testing. … Those [school systems] have really been eager to take this to the next level. I know there have been districts who are doing weekly screening, for instance, and are excited to expand that into a test-to-stay a program. There’s others who have been doing diagnostic testing and decided, we really want to expand the screening tests we’re doing in our schools to be on a weekly basis to cover more kids and this new investment is going to help enable that.

We’ve also heard from many districts who have not done testing and said that they’re eager to tap into it. They know that the current surge has really seen significant increases for caseloads, including with kids, and they want to make sure they can use this as a key line of defense in their school buildings. And so for them, you know, [our role has] been how can we help you set up testing successfully in your building. We’ve gotten started on this right away by offering technical assistance and support to school districts.

We’re offering more this week, we’re going to offer it every week for the next several weeks to make sure that no matter where you are in your testing journey, that if you’re a school who is interested in implementing testing that you’re able to do so. That you not only have the resources to do so in terms of tests, but that you also know how to use them effectively in your building.

Some people would say that the most recent expansion of K-12 testing is a great effort, but that it came too late to help schools respond nimbly to the Omicron surge. [Though of course, there might be subsequent surges.] I’m wondering what your response is there.

I disagree with that assessment. I think that we have made clear our commitment to keeping schools open safely. We’ve made that commitment clear through the American Rescue Plan, which provided $130 billion for K-12 schools through the Department of [Education] and $10 billion for K-12 COVID-19 testing. We’ve seen states take that money and set up testing approaches starting back in April of last year. So we are eager to build on that investment. And we saw across the country that schools who were already implementing testing strategies have been able to use it in this current surge very effectively.

And last question here. Clearly, the White House has put itself on the frontline of this testing shortage in schools. I’m curious whether the Department of Education also sees itself as responsible for helping to remedy the staffing shortages that many schools have been facing recently?

As an administration, we see the staffing issues that are occurring, and we take them very seriously.

We passed the American Rescue Plan specifically with the purpose of making sure that we could have more staff in school buildings, both to accommodate mitigation strategies like social distancing, but also to make sure that schools have all the people on hand that they need to make sure that students can come back safely and have their needs met after this completely unprecedented time.

First and foremost, we would want to remind school districts and states that they have that $130 billion to spend on additional staff, to retain the staff they have, to pay the staff they have more money, and really make sure that whatever personnel needs they have in response to pandemic can be met.

We’ve also really tried to make clear that there are existing flexibilities, either in ways that you approach retirees or others who were previously teachers, ways that you can hire bus drivers, creative uses of bringing more staff into buildings to make sure that we can meet the staffing needs of the school.

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